Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Small Picture and the Big Picture


The “trolley problem” is a powerful moral dilemma that forces us to define our ethical beliefs. The brakes on a trolley have stopped working. The conductor sees that there are five people working on the track, and if the trolley continues downhill it will kill them. He looks to his right, and sees that  he can turn the trolley onto a railroad spur. Unfortunately, on the railroad spur one person is working, and will be killed by if the conductor turns the trolley. What should he do?

The trolley problem asks: are you allowed to murder one person to save the lives of five others? Do the ends justify the means? This issue has long been debated by philosophers, and the two viewpoints are called deontological (or absolutist) and utilitarian. When I teach the trolley problem  in classes, most people take the utilitarian view that you kill one to save others. It seems to be a question of simple mathematics: five lives are greater than one.

What is fascinating is that the halachic tradition takes the other view. Starting from the Jerusalem Talmud to Maimonides and the Rama, Halacha forbids committing murder even under more extreme circumstances than the trolley problem. Why is this so?

A fascinating way of looking at this debate is offered by Thomas Nagel. He writes that: “Absolutism is associated with a view of oneself as a small being interacting with others in a large world…. (while) Utilitarianism is associated with a view of oneself as a benevolent bureaucrat distributing such benefits as one can control to countless other beings…..”.  The perspective of absolutism looks at the small picture, and asks what is my moral responsibility to a specific person. The utilitarian perspective looks at the big picture, and tries to get the best outcome for the entire world. The Talmud believes the small picture is the morally superior perspective. You need to do what is right to your neighbor before you run off and save the entire world.

In real life situations, we intuitively turn to this perspective. During the Holocaust, Jewish councils had to decide whether or not to turn over some of their population to the Nazis in order to help save the others. The rare few who collaborated with the Nazis with the rationale of saving lives, like Chaim Rumkowski, were vilified and judged harshly by history. Five against one looks like a mathematical problem until you are faced with doing the killing yourself.

Judaism sees the world through the small picture, and the Mishnah declares that saving the life of one person is as if you have saved an entire world. It is not that Judaism doesn’t worry about the global picture; it simply believes that we see the big picture through the lens of the small picture, and that global consciousness begins with personal relationships.  

The small picture perspective is not just about moral choices, it is also about building community. It is easy to discuss politics and only consider the big picture about what will be the best policies for our country, and forget about our friends and neighbors. In our political zeal, we find it intolerable to talk to anyone with a different point of view, and at times it seems as if people of different political persuasions are hermetically sealed from each other. (Much the same is true of Jews with different religious viewpoints; even Orthodox Jews with different views on women’s ordination can’t have a civil conversation together). This is a tragedy. Enamored with the big picture, we start to love America so much that we begin to hate other Americans, and love Judaism so much that we start to hate other Jews.

The Talmud’s lesson is that we fix the big picture only by fixing the small picture first. Hopefully we will remember this lesson before it is too late.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Country Club Synagogue and the Future of Orthodoxy

Why did the student choose Chabad over the Orthodox Hillel minyan?

At a panel discussion in our synagogue, Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove related the following about a congregant. She was a freshman at an Ivy league university, and even though she was raised in a Conservative synagogue, she visited the Orthodox minyanim. The vibrant Hillel minyan seemed closed and cold to her; in the end, she felt most welcome at the Chabad minyan.

This would seem counterintuitive; after all, the Hillel minyan is Modern Orthodox, with a sophisticated and contemporary crowd. So why did she feel more comfortable at Chabad?

The answer might seem simple: Chabad is more welcoming; people prefer Chabad because everyone feels at home. But that answer only begs the question. Why aren’t Orthodox synagogues more welcoming?

This question is critical. In the 2013 Pew study, Orthodox Jews make up 10% of the American Jewish population. While Orthodoxy has done a reasonable job of retaining the younger generation, and Orthodox Jews have large families, for the most part, Orthodoxy is not an attractive alternative for 90% of American Jews. Why? We should at least be able to reach 15% or 18% of American Jews?

Finding an answer requires a serious look at the culture of synagogues. In my experience, there are three types of synagogues: train stations, country clubs, and block parties.

The train station offers a full schedule for services. You can take a shacharit at 6:10, 7:15 and 8:30; you can take an “express”, or a full stop tefillah. Like a train, you remain anonymous even while in public. (The best example of  a train station synagogue is the shtibel, where there are multiple services in multiple rooms). One wonders if this truly fulfills the Halakhic concept of public prayer, because there is no sense of community, just a collection of individuals praying at the same time.

This type of experience can occur even in large, well established congregations. Gary Rosenblatt relates how a friend told him that when he was sitting shiva, he couldn’t identify someone who visited several times. "He looked familiar but I couldn't place him….I finally asked him who he was and he said, 'I'm the guy who's been sitting in your row in shul on Shabbat for the last six years."

That’s what it’s like praying in a train station. You don’t know the other commuters.
The open house is the exact opposite. All are welcome and warmly welcomed, and you are immediately included in the services, the kiddush and lunch invitations. Most Chabads are like this, but this attitude is not unique to Chabad. Any synagogue with sense of urgency will be welcoming.  Small communities will also warmly welcome new families; without them, the synagogue will close. What Chabad recognizes is that we all should have a sense of urgency about American Jewry, and that the welcoming must be done by everyone, everywhere.
But most synagogues are not open houses; the vast majority of synagogues are “country clubs”.  These congregations are there to serve their members. If you’re a member, the synagogue is yours: it’s your rabbi, your seat, and your friends. For an outsider, the experience is very different. There is actually a synagogue where most of the seats are owned by members, and if an outsider enters, he is told not to sit in those seats, even if the member is out of town. In country club synagogues, anyone who isn’t a “regular” doesn’t belong.

But why are there so many synagogues country clubs? Part of the answer lies in history. Many synagogues started out as clubs. In 1905,  Charles Seligman Bernheimer described the emergence of new synagogues in Philadelphia:

“A few individuals, usually such as came from the same town or district, ….. banded themselves together to form a beneficial society ordinarily bearing the name of the town or district whence most of the members came. The aim of such societies, in the first instance, was to assist financially any of the members who might be sick, to provide burial for the dead…. After the society became strengthened in numbers, a hall was hired for meeting purposes and was converted into a praying room. …..(and) the society imperceptibly turned into a congregation…..”

These synagogues were a slice of home in the new world. The synagogue was not just a house of prayer, but also a fraternal club where one could reconnect with old friends from the old country. This social club attitude has remained, and infiltrated many synagogues whatever their history, and now the country club synagogue is part of our DNA.

The main obstacle to changing the synagogue is that the country club model is quite compelling. Robert Putnam, in  his book Bowling Alone, delineates two types of social capital: bonding and bridging. Bonding social capital is what creates deep connections, whether it be in country clubs or synagogue sisterhoods. It molds people together into one cohesive community. Bridging social capital is when you reach out and network with new people and create new connections. Bonding will connect you to the friends who bring you chicken soup when you’re sick; through bridging you acquire the type of contacts that can help you find a job interview.

Bonding is exceptionally important, and the country club synagogue serves a critical social role. It is a place where everybody knows your name, and where your friends become a part of your family. And that is why it is such a difficult model to change.

But we must learn how to bridge. Putnam quotes Xavier de Souza Briggs who says that bonding capital is good for getting by, while bridging capital is good for getting ahead. Right now, the Orthodox community is getting by, but we are not getting ahead, and that is why we are stuck at 10%. We bond well with those close to us; but as a community, we are rather poor at building bridges to people of different backgrounds. And even on campus, Orthodox minyanim have a tendency to settle into old country club habits.

That must change. Orthodox synagogues must have a sense of urgency about the Jewish future. And we must build a Jewish future by building bridges to other Jews.